Vaporwave may be dead, but the trippy tunes and eccentric graphics that define the culture have left their mark on the online world. Though it began as a joke, the first e-genre grew to impressive heights after finding love throughout online communities. As the mutated lovechild of internet boredom and millennial nostalgia, vaporwave comprises of bits and pieces of jazz, soul and elevator music from the 80’s and 90’s that are sampled and distorted to unrecognizable levels.
Beyond its mutated musical aspect, vaporwave developed into a digital subculture as an amalgamation of glitch art, early computer graphics, Roman busts and Japanese characters. Seapunk, an earlier online subculture prevalent on Tumblr and known for its 3D aquatic art and iconography, has visibly influenced vaporwave. The rise of vaporwave and subsequent attempts to deconstruct it provide an intriguing narrative: the numerous cultures brought together into one, the over-the-top weirdness, the labelling of it as Marxist critique on modern consumer culture, all blend together to capture the cumulative essence of online society.
In 2010, an electronic artist called Oneohtrix Point Never (Daniel Lopatin) released Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1, a collection of chopped and distorted 80’s pop song loops made by Lopatin as a joke project. Unintentionally, the sound caught on and similar releases by Macintosh Plus, Internet Club and others became archetypes of the genre. The ease of production soon ushered in a new current of vaporwave artists who were self-made suburban DJs enamored with the new trend and seeking to leave their mark on the community, whether seriously or not.
The digital copycats led to a flooding of similar-sounding tunes; consequently, what had once been characterized as fresh and innovative was now stale and over-used. However, certain key artists like Skeleton and Hong Kong Express, took the genre into wilder territories, exemplified by their EPs that were released in 2010 and 2014, respectively. Skeleton’s album 骨架的 laced the vaporwave distortions with eerie overtones intended unnerve the listener. Obviously, this chopped amalgamation of sound found a receptive audience with the vaporwave crowd. Additionally, Hong Kong Express’s 浪漫的夢想 (“Romantic dream”) tried a more narrative style approach, seeking to explore themes of romance and mystery as it took the listener on a midnight trip through Hong Kong. The artists that add a new, unique flavor to vaporwave stand out, as the nature of the subgenre lends itself to the possibility of overworked combinations of sound.
For some, the genre is a critique on the capitalist model of consumption. Actually, the name “vaporwave” alludes to the term “vaporware,” which refers to products announced and marketed to the public but never actually released. Writer and critic, Grafton Tanner, aptly describes vaporwave as the sound of “non-times and non-places,” and contends that it is no coincidence that a shopping mall is “a symbol used by multiple vaporwave composers to evoke a place in which their warped music could be heard.” Based on the consumerist argument, vaporwave also represents listeners’ skepticism of the consumer culture’s ability to influence both time and space. While it appears as an infuriating and nonsensical rebellion against traditional kinds of music, it also challenges ideas of ownership, music piracy and originality, as the entire genre is founded upon music sampling, distortion and, to some, downright theft. Also, vaporwave culture subtly salutes a middle finger to capitalism in the way it distorts and rebounds popular songs back in the faces of the artists themselves. The transient nature of the genre alludes to the Marxist quote: “all that is solid melts into air,” a line referring to the false stability guaranteed by capitalism.
Ultimately, vaporwave is not a concept that can easily be labelled or understood. Like the internet itself, it continues to evolve in new and unexpected ways. Fans may deem the culture dead, but the birth and development of vaporwave has proven to represent the buildup of a new, unconventional direction down which composers may venture. The few artists that were previously mentioned are only a few of the thousands that have added their own drops to the mixture. What is important to remember is that for many, the style is just a joke – a product of an age that overvalues the witty, punny internet culture perpetuated by memes. Trying to conclusively analyze vaporwave is likely futile, as the relative meanings that viewers and listeners attribute to it become obsolete with each new iteration of the genre. Above all else, vaporwave reflects the mutated, miscellaneous blend of images and sounds that live and interact in our collective, societal subconscious. As we continue to consume and distort, the bold cowboys of vaporwave convert chaos into music and iconography that waits to be swallowed and warped once again.